Color, Materials and Finish, or CMF, is still an emerging part of industrial design and one that rarely gets discussed. This interview with Alastair Curtis is the first in a series with key players in design that are leading in the use of materials and CMF. I invited them to discuss materials and CMF for different reasons. Coming from healthcare, automotive and consumer electronics they will all address the changing use of materials within their industries with a particular focus on plastics and the environment.
Under the design leadership of Alastair Curtis, Logitech has used CMF and in particular materials as a way to build a bold, new strategy where it has reinvented itself with products that are defined by lifestyle than its heritage as black ABS computer peripherals. Its use of textiles to change the way we perceive a loudspeaker as a product not just to play music but an excuse to have fun on the beach, in the park etc was one of the early pioneers that took this adventurous step to replace hard materials with soft. Their speckled effect K780 keyboard was a great case study in how you can push aesthetics for electronics to make the more 'domesticated'. It's a brand that I admire both in its approach to CMF and ability as an organization to push through new materials, something that is always a huge challenge.
Chris Lefteri: Logitech has one of the most distinctive, resonant, ambitious CMF and materials across its different products. How do you, as the guy who heads it up achieve that?
Alastair Curtis: It was a relatively low-hanging fruit if you go back five or six years when I first joined. Logitech had seen phenomenal growth for thirty plus years riding the wave of PC peripherals in the early days and the explosion of people having a home computer, be it a tower or even a laptop. In that rapid growth, in the ability to ride that wave, Logitech had automized the machine to deliver incredibly reliable products, but they were, some-what, cost optimized to be reliable tools rather than emotional products. Whether it was conscious or subconscious, it evolved into a predominately safe portfolio of, and I'm simplifying, but black plastic.
Obviously, the introduction of the smartphone, the introduction of the tablet had a huge impact on Logitech and Logitech's trajectory. Subsequently, there were some hard times and a reevaluation of the portfolio and a reevaluation of the company's strategy. Bracken Darrell was brought in as the CEO and I joined as the Chief Design Officer. As we built out the design team, we started to have an impact of the portfolio. One of the key members of the team that I brought on was the head of CMF Katherine Pulford. She set about establishing a CMF strategy and how to apply color differently to our portfolio, but also starting to look at what new materials and finishes we could bring to the portfolio. So it wasn't just about taking the mouse and taking it from black to red, but bringing silicones, bringing new materials and finishes to the products to bring about new experiences. As we started to establish a momentum, we then started to broaden the strategy across the whole portfolio and all of Logitech brands.
CL: You went from black plastic products to products like the UE BOOM that embody very tangible experiences, because of the materials. The BOOM for example for me feels more of an excuse to have fun on the beach, in the park, on the move, rather than just to listen to music it was also one of the early uses of textiles in consumer electronics. Using textiles was a pretty bold move.
AC: If you look at that time when we were getting momentum with the traditional sort of 'heartland' of Logitech - the keyboards and mice world, we were also just starting to get momentum with Ultimate Ears and the BOOM and the MEGABOOM which were using fabrics. At the time, the use of the fabrics was quite revolutionary in the consumer electronics space. I mean, now you kind of see fabric everywhere- Google, Apple across the board, but at the time the Ultimate Ears BOOM was quite a new product and it gave us a great canvas for color, and a great canvas for print, and for one-off graphics specials. The infusion of new materials and new colors in the keyboards and mice gave Logitech a huge amount of confidence about how it could start thinking about and talking about color and materials as part of its point of differentiation to the rest of the market and its competition at that time.
Ultimate Ears BOOM Portable Speaker
CL: So you have these speakers that are very dominated by color, textiles, soft-touch materials. Then you have mice which have a use of materials that tell totally different stories for different audiences. Where other brands might try to unify their products through a singular brand CMF yours are very individually targeted. Were you tempted to create a homogenous CMF for the brand?
AC: We have high level design principles which apply to every brand and every category we have in the company, but when you sort of helicopter down, and come down into each brand, we were very conscious about maintaining authenticity and uniqueness of brand identity within that specific brand. So, it's not to say we didn't necessarily use a certain color in multiple categories and multiple brands, but we were very conscious of maintaining a color palette specific to each brand.
CL: I think that it's quite a challenge for a lot of companies to integrate marketing, sales, sourcing into design and to understand the value of CMF and using unconventional materials. I know that from the organization point of view different teams at Logitech are very closely integrated. Does the marketing team embrace the whole CMF and materials approach?
AC: You know, in some ways it's harder now than it was five years ago. That's not a critique of the people today versus five years ago. If you go back five six years ago, the company had gone through a very tough time and was more open minded – I'm trying to say that when you've been sort of humbled a little bit, when you've gone through a hard time, you are more open minded to new ideas, new ways of doing things and new approaches. If you look at it from me coming in, it was a great time for me and the design team to come in and establish ourselves because there was no baggage, no history and the incumbency was ready for change. We were a natural change agent. Introducing new colors and materials was not that hard actually. The sales regions were very open minded very welcoming to new thinking and freshening up of the portfolio.
If you fast forward to now, we review every brand, every portfolio on a weekly basis. Not every product that's live, but we'll deep dive on a specific product within each business group once a week. From the earliest sketch all the way through to final products and launch, we try and do those reviews not just as a design team, but we also call in part of our marketing organization. So they have visibility in the early days but they also have a means to input and, to a certain extent, co-create as we evolve from a blank piece of paper to final product. So it's a much more collaborative, shared process versus a, 'we do our bit and hand it over, and someone else does their bit.'
CL: Spotlight, which is the presenter tool, is another great materials case study. You created the product from researching the emotions people go through when giving presentations. I read that you studied how it feels to give a presentation, with even the most experienced presenters getting nervous. You used that research to drive a product that was going to change the way that the presenter felt about giving presentations. How did materials feed into that product to enhance that experience?
Spotlight Universal Notebook Remote Control
AC: Yeah, the materials played a key part in many ways. I mean you yourself do lots of presentations and I do a fair chunk of presentations and however many you do, you still become nervous, there's still anxiety depending on the number of people in the audience. When we started to design that product, it was clear that the more you can provide confidence in the tools, not just Spotlight, but all of the tools, that they are going to work when you want them to work, how you want them to work, it takes a chunk of the anxiety away.
So when we were designing the product it was 'how do you make it as simple to use,' which obviously, we paired back the number of buttons to make it as simple to use but how do you make it feel solid, reliable and make you feel good through the premium-ness of the materials? Yes, I'm sure we could have made it out of a beautiful plastic, with great finishes. But the coldness of the metal, the rigidity of the metal and just the perception of what metal brings as far as higher value - it may only be two percent, it may only be three percent but its just that little more confidence it gives the consumer when they're using the product versus when they're using anything else.
CL: Ok so you were bold in the way you were using textiles for the BOOM speakers but you were also pretty brave in the K780 keyboard which is a CMF icon and one my studio often use as a reference. It has also inspired many other products with the same effect. It was quite radical because you're using a texture that could potentially appear to be a flaw, and you have to get it absolutely right in terms of the density of specs, distribution and the color. Was that a challenge to get through?
K780 Multi-Device Wireless Keyboard
AC: When it was first pitched and proposed, it was quite a challenge and I think it's fair to say even though, as you said, its held up like a quite a key product from introducing the speckle and the CMF, in your words icon, it's also fair to notice that it's not that color and it doesn't have speckles in every region. So I think in Europe it has the speckles, but in the US it doesn't have the speckles because the US market wasn't ready for speckles. They thought it would be too polarizing. So I think that probably indicates how challenging it can be to get something like that into the global portfolio.
CL: I've heard some companies talk about the sense that there is an expectation from consumers of perfection in products. You can look at phones as an example of completely seamless products- there are no joints, no screws. What's interesting about the keyboard is that you could interpret that as a sort of a natural product where inconsistency in the flakes maybe shows imperfection. Do you think consumers are moving towards more of an acceptance of that kind of effect- when it comes to sustainability because maybe there are certain materials where it would benefit them not being so perfect and pristine?
AC: If you ask me that about the consumer today, then I would say no, I think there still is an expectation of perfection driven by Apple over the past five, ten years. I think we have to change that and I think the consumer will evolve in their understanding of materials, evolve in their understanding of sustainably and the implications of sustainability. I think, if you ask me in five years time, in ten years time, I think the consumer will be having a very different perspective, I hope they will have a very different perspective.
That's the challenge, I think, for Logitech - we discuss talk about it a lot. Actually quite recently we have, regarding our position and the fact that we don't talk about it. At some point we may need to talk about it, not sort of putting the flag up and going, 'woo! Aren't we great from a sustainably perspective?' We may need to, in some form or another, think about how do we communicate that our product is using sustainable materials and sustainable processes versus the competition. Because if the consumer doesn't understand that ours may be more sustainable in materials and finish than the competition, they may look at our product as a lesser product because of that perfection dimension.
It's almost not apples and apples as a comparison. How we do that? I think we've still got to look at and explore ideas. Its like food packaging – you look at the packaging and it talks about the food inside, it talks about sodium, fats, fibers, etc. So you have a sense of how healthy that food is inside the packaging. I wonder whether this idea from packaging is going to have to happen, within the consumer electronics market. It's going to have to play a role similar to that in the early days, where a consumer can hold a mouse against another mouse and see that, functionally, they are the same product but also then recognize that one is far more sustainable solution than the other.
I mean, we are moving in that direction. There will be companies who take a position and pioneer and drive towards more sustainable solutions and others will be slower, but the consumer won't recognize that, and we're going to have to work out how to, 'educate' sounds awfully patronizing, but make consumers more aware when they're making those choices.
CL: What else can you share about Logitech's approach to the environment?
AC: In general terms, we're incredibly committed to sustainability, and not just an abstract sustainability target, we have distinct sustainability targets which are aligned with goals beyond Logitech. We're looking at the Paris Agreement and other measures. We're looking at our complete footprint and handprint for the whole company, from our factories to try and make the factory carbon neutral, packaging and all the way down through materials.
So it's not like we flick a switch and we'll go, 'okay, everything has to be fully recyclable material from the get go.' But we are committed to transforming the whole portfolio in line with our sustainability targets. We dropped PVC cables three years ago. But it's more about transitioning the whole portfolio, not only from a materials perspective, but also how we assemble them, how we make them disassemble-able, so the full circular program.
CL: I have heard that at Logitech you are doing this not because we've done research that says your consumers want you to do or expect it, but actually, because you, ethically, feel that you should be doing it.
AC: I completely agree, that's why we've not really talked about it publicly at all. This is very much going up to Bracken and going down to the leadership team across the board. It's a commitment to our future generations, it's not a commitment to making a more sellable product to the consumer.
Recognized throughout the world as a leading authority on materials and their application in design, Chris Lefteri is one of the most important materials experts working in his field. For over a decade his studio work and publications have been pivotal in changing the way designers and the materials industry consider materials. In 2001 he published the first of eight books on materials and their application in design, which have been translated into six languages. These books have led the change in the way designers view and use materials. Subsequently his studio, Chris Lefteri Design, has worked with bluechip corporations and major design studios across Europe, the US and Asia implementing a broad range of strategies for effective materials integration in the design process.